For Vet, Ex-N.C. Officer, Memorial Day Shows Country's 'Sacrifice'

May 27, 2024
Ronald Pouncey Sr., an 80-year-old retired captain with the Winston-Salem Police Department, served as an Army drill instructor at Fort Bragg, now Fort Liberty, during the Vietnam War.

GREENSBORO, NC — Staring at etched names on the black granite panels that seemed to go on forever at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington earlier this year left Roscoe Pouncey Sr. emotional.

The former drill instructor from Winston-Salem had trained thousands and thousands of young soldiers at Fort Bragg, now Fort Liberty, who were headed to Vietnam. More than 58,000 died there and are listed on the wall.

There are countless names in the circuit of monuments he would visit that day.

"I knew there were some on that wall that I had trained," the 80-year-old veteran recalled. "I was heartbroken."

As the country acknowledges their absence this Memorial Day, so does Pouncey, who wants to make sure they are never forgotten. Not as long as he has a voice.

Corp values

He is not alone, especially here.

More than 150,000 veterans call the Triad home, making it the largest concentration of veterans in the state.

According to the Veterans Administration, more than 703,000 veterans live in North Carolina. Of them, more than 548,000 are wartime veterans. Just over 10,000 are World War II veterans and about 85,000 are women.

In Greensboro, the Carolina Field of Honor stands as a symbol of respect to those who didn't come home. Through fundraising and sponsorships, Triad Honor Flight leaves Piedmont Triad International Airport to take groups of veterans to the memorials in Washington, D.C., for free.

On a more recent flight, the three World War II veterans, including a female soldier, laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, which is dedicated to those whose remains have not been identified.

"It's one of the most amazing things you can ever witness," said Alison Huber, the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Triad Honor Flight.

Point of no return

Laura Bailey, the president of the Greensboro Historical Museum's Board of Trustees, has been on a number of those flights. Bailey earned a master's degree in World War II studies from a joint degree program between the World War II Museum and Arizona State University.

She did so after the death of her grandfather, who had served in World War II. She didn't find out until after he returned to civilian life and much later upon his death, that he earned the Bronze Star, which is given for heroic achievements. As she sought to learn more about her grandfather, her fascination deepened and turned into research for a podcast and soon, a book.

She recalls a Pearl Harbor veteran she met on the flight, who told her about hanging out with a fellow soldier in Waikiki the day before the surprise attack by the Japanese. They had gotten back to the barracks in the wee hours of the fateful morning of Dec. 7, 1941.

He remembered the song, "I don't want to set the world on fire" by the Ink Spots playing when he was leaving and coming back.

"The next morning he was at breakfast, and the chow hall was on the bottom floor of the building the barracks were in and they started hearing a commotion," Bailey described.

They stopped eating and ran up the steps, where they saw the Japanese planes dropping bombs. One fell near them, knocking them all to the ground.

"He was the only one to get back up," Bailey said.

Many veterans have been relieved as she listens to them.

"Because they know their stories," she said, "aren't going to die with them."

'Just be safe'

Pouncey, the drill instructor, couldn't recall any of the names of the young men he had trained as he relived his own memories.

He only had them for eight to 10 weeks. When they left on a Friday, a new group came in that Sunday.

He had also been the same age as most of them. In his early 20s, he had left N.C. Central University after his freshman year to sign up for duty, knowing that while serving his country he would also be able to earn money to get him through college.

The relationship with the young soldiers was built on a desire to give them the tools needed to survive. Live. And come home.

It was building stamina and skills through some of the toughest drills possible because of where they were headed.

"It was something like that, yes," Pouncey said of pushing the recruits. "We didn't punish them, but we tried to give them the best training possible. My goal was to make them combat-ready because I knew most of them were headed to Vietnam."

He always ended training with: "Just be safe."

Pouncey knew the routine all too well, at Fort Jackson, S.C., where he was trained in the artillery division. His first assignment would be in Korea.

Then he was sent back to the states, and Fort Bragg, to help start a training center for new recruits and where he would become the first Black drill instructor on the base.

When Pouncey was later discharged, he went back to college and later went to work for the Winston-Salem Police Department, where he retired as a captain years later.

His son, Roscoe Pouncey Jr., would serve in the Army's 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg and retire from the same police force.

On that Honor Flight trip, Pouncey remembers standing at the foot of the Arlington National Cemetery.

"It goes on for more than 600 acres and all you can see are graves," Pouncey said of the more than 400,000 people buried there. "It goes to show that it takes a lot of sacrifice to keep the country safe."

___

(c)2024 the News & Record (Greensboro, N.C.)

Visit the News & Record (Greensboro, N.C.) at www.news-record.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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